Another Take on the Colorado Massacre

This has been beaten to death in “the media” (whatever that means). I don’t want to have a political discussion or a political rant about gun rights or letting psychos loose or anything like that. I mean no disrespect to the people who lost lives, property, limbs, or well-being. What happened in Colorado was horrible, and I want to make that clear.

However, this is a movie blog, and this happened at the movies. The whole incident reminds me of just how much we’ve lost as a society in so many ways.

The screening of The Dark Knight Rises was a community event. We have so few of those today. It was an event that people wanted to attend, that people wanted to share. It was the opening of a movie people were eagerly awaiting, and they lined up to see it.

That kind of thing is going away. When I was a kid, there were lines around the block to see Star Wars. Before that, you’d stand in line to see Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music. The opening night of a James Bond film, every two years or so, was a big event. Even the Star Trek films were a big deal. Now, not so much.

Our whole culture has become depersonalized and cold, in a way that seems like a bad Stanley Kubrick film. Movies are not for big screens but for iPhones. Want to eat in a restaurant? Well, you can go to the fast food giant and they can pump you full of calories for pennies, and you can do it all from the privacy of your car, never seeing anyone, never talking to anyone else, never sharing the experience. Don’t take the bus, take your car. Kids don’t even play outside anymore. They stay inside and play video games. It seems that we can live our entire lives without sharing anything with another living person.

Is it any wonder that Facebook has become so popular? As the whole world has become so depersonalized, Facebook is personal. You can pick your friends, build communities, and share things. Like it or not, people are biologically attuned to this sort of thing. We need it, but we’re not getting much of it these days.

That’s why, even though I’ve not seen a single one of the Christopher Nolan Batman series, I welcomed this phenomenon. People gathering in one place at one time to share a moment in the cinema! Cool!

And now this happens. Beyond the grim statistics and horrible outcomes, it says a lot about what the cinema has become, not a bit of it good.

It seems that Holmes left the back door open and came back to the premiere unobstructed. Where were the ushers? We don’t have them anymore. What was the emergency evacuation plan? We don’t have them anymore. Where was the projectionist? Long since fired, replaced by automation. The only people manning the theater were zit-faced teenagers at the popcorn stand, none of whom had any idea what to do. OK, more staff may not have solved the problem, but it certainly could have helped.

This was a big premiere. A multiplicity of social issues were involved. There were children, even some newborns, in the audience. Why? Why would a parent take a pre-teen to a violent movie like this? In an age of helicopter parents who over-control every aspect of the lives of children, how is this OK? How is it that we can’t see Bugs Bunny on network TV anymore, because that’s too violent, but you take those same kids to see Batman blow people away on the big screen?

In the old days, in the 40s or 50s, it would have been harder for this massacre to happen. There’s nothing new about midnight showings, and there’s nothing new about sold-out openings. Those have been going on for years.

What’s different is that in the old days there was always a theater manager present, and each screen had an usher, or multiple ushers. Someone had the responsibility to check the exits and to warn management if people got unruly. The usher would throw you out if you were obnoxious. What a refreshing idea! In the wake of many theater fires, there was a plan (required by law) to evacuate people in the case of an emergency. The ushers were trained in how to do this.

A lot of theaters even had a kiddie movie run simultaneously with the “adult movie” so that the parents could drop off the kids safely. Other theaters actually had rooms for parents with small children, glassed off from the main house, so that they could watch the movie but not have loud children disrupt the experience for everyone else.

We solved all these problems by firing all of the ushers and relaxing all the rules. Today, people can act up in a theater, can call on their cell phones endlessly, and there are no consequences. It’s had a big impact, too: most people don’t want to go to a movie theater anymore, because it’s not as fun as it used to be.

It’s easy to blame the theater owners or Hollywood itself for this problem, but that would be unfair. As movie theater attendance dwindled due to TV, Hollywood reacted by making bigger, more spectacular movies. TV couldn’t compete in spectacle. In making bigger movies, they needed to recover more money, so they charged the theaters more for them.

Since the Supreme Court had decreed that movie studios could not own theater chains, Hollywood and the owners had to vie for tight funds. The theater owners reacted in the only ways they could. They fired the ushers, laid off excess projectionists, hired teenagers at minimum wage, fudged on equipment, skimped on theater cleaning, etc.

Patrons noticed the changes and reacted by going to fewer movies. And Hollywood and the theater owners reacted by tightening even more. It’s gotten worse and worse. Many theaters are to the point that they are actually unpleasant to attend, and the whole presentation is slipshod at best. Fifty years ago, attending a movie was a spectacular event. Today, seeing a movie means going to a depersonalized box theater. We’ve gone from filet mignon to McDonald’s, but we are still charged for filet mignon. Is it any wonder people don’t go?

As fewer people attend movies in theaters, Hollywood has turned to a reliable demographic: teenage boys love to get out of the house, from under their parents’ thumbs, to see movies. All of the rest of the world has been conditioned to stay home.

Gee, today we have movies that are based on comic books, with no plots and too many explosions. Why is that?

And that leads me back to The Dark Knight Rises. An event, a community event, aimed, predictably, at fifteen-year-old boys. Still, it’s better than nothing, and I was for it, if for no other reason than it keeps alive a 100-year-old tradition of cinema.

My fear is that this will erode the theatrical experience even further. People will probably feel like sitting ducks in a movie house, perhaps with some justification.

How do we fix it? We remember some things:

  1. People go to the movies for a good time. We have to give them one. That means that they have to behave well in groups. Americans are born for rugged individualism, and that should have some limits inside a theater: no loud talking, no cell phones, no throwing things, etc.
  2. We have to have one or two trained theater employees at each screening to enforce behavior rules and help in case of emergencies. Having someone there who has a clue about what to do in an emergency makes people feel safer.
  3. If we fixed #1 and #2, then more people who aren’t necessarily 15-year-old boys might come back to the cinemas. We should make movies for them, too. Did you notice that Midnight in Paris made $100 million on a small budget? There wasn’t an explosion in it. Food for thought, guys.

I find that more and more movies are made for a smaller and smaller audience paying less and less money for each one. That means that all of cinema is becoming YouTube. YouTube is great, but it’s not for Lawrence of Arabia, or even The Match King. It’s great for cat videos, and promos, and your nephew Louie’s new shaky-cam epic, shot in the back yard.

As I mourn for the victims of the shootings in Colorado, I fear one of the casualties may be cinema itself. I almost feel a responsibility to go see a movie just to vote with my dollars.  As a wise man once said, “If the psychos scare you so much that you change your behavior and live in fear, not doing what you once did, then that’s how they win.”

Let’s not let Holmes win.  There’s a reason that the Dr. Film pilot ends with these words: “Go out and see an old movie.” Movies were designed with an audience in mind, timed for an audience, and play best with them.  Let’s all go see a movie (preferably an old one.)

Taking the Picture No One Likes

I’m bad at marketing.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that.  I can fix your computer, but I couldn’t convince you to buy one.  Some people are just built that way.

When I shot the pilot episode for Dr. Film, I thought that people would be jazzed about it, that they’d put it in the DVD player, watch it, read the material I sent, and we’d have a deal.

I sent it everywhere I could find an address.  I had some printed material that I’d prepared explaining what the show was.  I thought it was fine.

Of course, no one responded.  Not one.  They didn’t even say that they didn’t like the show.  I then discovered a fundamental truth of life (although I knew it before, it was really hammered home):

People will flock around to tell you what’s wrong with a failed project, but while you’re working on it, they say nothing.

My friends agreed that I’d screwed up by not having a slick cover color folder for the show.  Then the consensus was that no one would read all the material I sent, so it needed to be cut down.

But then the last part was that I needed to spiff it up with ART!  I was told that I needed to push the idea that we’re dealing with classic film!  Emphasize the characters!  Emphasize the interaction!  In the show, they’re never in the same shot!  Have them together!

Wow.  All great ideas.  I’d never thought of them.  Of course, no one thought to tell me this before I sent all the material to all the TV stations.

I couldn’t hire an artist.  Artists need to eat three times a day, so they can’t work for free.  And since I didn’t have any money to give them, hiring an artist was out, out, out.

OK, that’s fine, say I.  I have some experience in this.  I may not be the greatest artist in the world, but I think I can get the job done.  Hmm, the show’s characters interacting.  In the same shot.  Emphasizing film.

There’s another problem. In the show, Dr. Film and Anamorphia never are in the same shot for very practical reasons: a) I only had one camera and b) Anamorphia is an elaborate (not digital) special effect.  Dr. Film isn’t a special effect at all, and so they can’t be in the same shot together.

I got an inspired idea.  Anamorphia is so named because she’s anamorphic: she’s squeezed horizontally, like someone who survived an Edgar Allan Poe torture, unlike Glory, who plays her.  Just for one shot, I knew I could get them together, but only if I lined them up just right.

I’d give Glory an extra large reel of 35mm film, with a diameter twice as large as a regular reel.  Then, I’d shoot her dead on straight ahead, and I’d be standing next to her.  The math would work out so I could squeeze her in a photo program and it would make the wide reel look like a regular one!

How would they interact?  Well, in the show, the characters are always bickering about how long-winded and boring he is about film.  She’s gotten frustrated with his verbose habits and wraps him in the film he’s been talking about too much. He’s angry, she’s angry, that’s consistent, PERFECT.

By this time, it had been over a year since we’d shot the show.  But that’s OK, we thought, no one saw it in the first place, so we can still send it out with the new slick paper brochure!  I needed help, because I couldn’t shoot it myself: I’m actually in the shot.  I talked to my sister about it.

ACK. Glory is shorter than I am, and my sister is shorter than I am.  My sister had the idea of shooting outside to make sure we could get lots of light.  That made harsh unflattering shadows, but there was a worse problem.  Due to the widely varying heights, nothing lined up, and I looked like a giant slug being wound up by a tiny silkworm.  It was ridiculous.

Glory complained that the reel I’d found for her was actually full of real film!  This was a problem because a 3000’ reel with film on it is heavy, and she had to hold it very still, and straight horizontally, to get the shots.  Not a good idea.  She was pretty sore by the end of the shoot, and I don’t blame her.  Especially since the pictures were utterly unusable.

Upon reflection, I remembered that Glory (a historian) had just written a National Register nomination for a building with a large stage.  If we could use it, then we could stand on the stage, and have a photographer stand on the main floor, thereby solving the height issues.

I also decided I’d be seated, which helped equalize the height differential.  I found an empty reel, and that made it a little easier for her.  The building owners allowed us to use the stage for a few hours.  I brought in lights, tripods, everything.

It was HOT!  The lights were in my face all the time, and I was wrapped in disintegrating film.  I used a vinegary print of From Russia With Love so I wouldn’t ruin good film!  It smelled terrible, and as I was sweating, it dripped dye on me.  Wonderful.

We spent about 2 hours shooting.  My friend Greg shot the pictures this time.  (My sister couldn’t get off work!)  Greg tried really hard, but 99% of the pictures were junk.  There was one picture in the whole bunch that looked OK.  It was very dark, even with all the light we had pouring on us.  It was just a hard picture to shoot.

I’m not going to show all the raw pictures, because I’d had Glory stand closer to the camera (to keep me from overwhelming the shot).  This caused some focus issues and makes her look unusually large in the raw image.

I worked on equalizing the exposure and applied the anamorphic factor, and got this:

Suddenly, voila, we have art!  Dr. Film and Anamorphia in the same shot!  I used the picture for the new brochure and spruced it up.  I thought it looked pretty good.  We ran it by some design people.  They liked it.  I cut the text down to 8 pages, with lots of color pictures.

Guess what?  This will surprise you.  No response.  Apparently no one even bothered to look at it.

Discouraged?  You bet.  I was about ready to give up on the project.  We’d thrown time and money at it, and no one cared at all.  We weren’t even interesting enough to warrant a polite, “HEY! Buzz off, willya?”

But Dr. Film also seems to be The Project That Never Dies.  There are always a few people who have been unfailingly encouraging, to the point that some people are in my face saying, “It’s a great idea!  Don’t give up on this show!”  (I’ve never actually been sure why this is, but it seems to be.  Most of the rest of the world looks at Dr. Film with a cold indifference.)

I installed a blog on the web page, the one you’re reading now, updated the site, and went from there.  The blog, as you can see, has been a rip-roaring success, attracting email from Viagra shippers the world over.  With no real web traffic and only a tepid response to the blog, I was ready to shut the project down again.

Several others suggested that Dr. Film was too long.  The feeling was that we needed cut it down and make it in 30 minutes, based on the attention span of modern audiences.  This is where I draw the line.  I have a two-fold argument with this: a) there are so many interesting movies out there that don’t get shown that I hate to CUT them to something shorter.  b) A 30-minute show is actually more work than a two-hour show!  Why?  Well, I have to go through more material, cherry-pick, and edit.  More narration to explain what’s missing.  More shooting.  More work.

The whole idea of Dr. Film has always been to make an economical show that appeals to an admittedly small demographic.  Since a 30-minute show means more time, it also means I’d have to charge more money, which I think is more of an impediment than the difficulty in clearing a two-hour slot.

Glory and I talked to publicity people and they told us that there was probably no hope for Dr. Film since no one responded.  Once again, I was ready to shut the project down and move on to other things.

Remember I said Dr. Film just never seems to die?  Well, I had an idea.  You see, I don’t believe anyone who matters has ever watched the show and given it any sort of chance.    I have a feeling that it’s off the beaten path, consequently under the radar.  I don’t think it mattered what sort of picture we had.

I realize that Dr. Film is an unconventional project.  I know that there is a niche market, but we have to reach it.  My idea was to draw upon on word-of-mouth support and an internet community.  If we have a vibrant Facebook group, a bunch of advocates for the show, a successful blog, then people have to notice it.  Someone floated the idea that “Support Dr. Film!” t-shirts would be a great idea.  A way to build the community feeling.

That’s fine, I thought!  I’ve got art for shirts!  We’re set!  I’d designed a shirt for a convention showing, and I still had the files!

Then, just as I was ready to submit the design, a couple of people, all generally supporters of the show, told me how much they hated the shirt.


They hated that same picture I’d literally sweat over for hours.  And hate was the word.  It was repulsive.  One guy told me he’d never wear the shirt because it looked like a bondage scene to him.

I have to tell you that I never thought of this.  Knowing the characters, and knowing that there is not a spark of anything between them, it never occurred to me.  Not once.

OK, so what should we have instead?  This is where I get frustrated.  Once again, people can’t seem to tell you what they like.  It’s the old joke, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”

Some ideas were in direct contradiction to other ones.  I wanted to scream.  Actually, I did scream.  I thought we were about done, and suddenly, I was back at square one.  I often marvel about how I’ve come this far on Dr. Film with nothing to show for it!

Ernie Kovacs once called Edie Adams and told her that the show opening wasn’t working, and he didn’t know why.  He was joking about being tired and working overtime.  Edie told him that the audience didn’t care how tired they were or how hard they worked.  They only cared whether the show was funny or not.

Edie was right. It makes no difference how we got to the t-shirt design and how we took The Picture That No One Likes!  It only matters that we came up with a design that people seem to like.  On the other hand, it’s a great story and it makes a great blog entry!

You note I’ve not spoken about what I thought personally?  Well, I don’t like the new design (even though I did it.)  I like the other one better.  I don’t think there’s enough art in this one.

But, clearly, I have no idea what I’m talking about!

PS: I haven’t had a chance to take redo the art for the brochure, so you can still see it here.